One With The Shadows
Rome, the Eternal City, 1822
As Kate moved past the footmen into the glittering salon, conversation hushed. The heavy veil she wore gave her an air of mystery. Wait until they saw what was under it. The veil did not prevent her from picking out her potential marks. A young man lounged by the window, his cravat tied much too carelessly. His coat, though of a noxious green, had been cut by an excellent tailor, and his watch fob sparked with diamonds. His weak chin was merely icing on the cake. And over by the ornate table laid with sweetmeats and small cakes, a beefy woman was practically wringing her hands in anticipation. A plump pigeon ready for the plucking.
Kate strolled into the center of the room. It smelled of human bodies, not all of which had bathed in the last few days, various clashing perfumes, and the pungent earthiness of snuff. Tonight she was Kathleen Mulroney, descended from all-seeing Druids. She had been called Katerina Petrova, Catherine von Duesing, and a hundred other names, but underneath she was Kate, just Kate, because that was the only name she'd had growing up on the streets of London.
Now that she'd riveted the attention of the room upon her, she made her curtsey to the delicate woman who was the hostess of this gathering. "Mi buona amica, Marquesa Trasemeno, I have come to reveal the secrets of the future to your guests." Her Italian was nearly flawless. Kate had an ear for languages. She spoke six or seven. There had been no choice but to learn languages after she and Matthew had fled his gambling debts in England to earn their livelihood wandering across the Continent. She had never called him Father or Papa, even when he pretended that was what he was. To her, he was always just Matthew. But Matthew was dead and the obligation of earning her living now fell to her alone.
The room hummed again with conversation, much of it concerning her. She stood, a still center to the activity, in shimmering gray, her veil hung from a silver Spanish comb pushed into the knot of hair at her crown. She let the tension build while she studied her surroundings. The house was baroque like much of Rome, its ceiling made of carved and gilded wood which framed oil paintings darkened with age. Tapestries depicting armies frozen in some grand victory lined the walls, and Aubesson carpets softened the marble floor. The whole was lit by candles set in chandeliers and sconces. Around the room ornately carved chairs of heavy wood looked so uncomfortable everyone elected to stand as they laughed and gossiped. The Romans were a voluble and silly race, easy to dupe.
And that was a good thing. Much depended upon tonight. It had taken her three weeks to worm her way into this invitation. She was running low on funds after her sudden, necessary exit from Vienna. If tonight was successful she would have perhaps a month of fleecing the fools lured into dependency on her predictions and advice with expensive private readings. If she was careful, Rome would add a pretty penny to the fund that would one day let her escape this life.
Best she get on with it. This was the part she hated most. She picked out a chair that looked almost like a throne at the head of the room. It commanded a view of the salon. There was plenty of room to allow people to cluster round her.
She straightened. "Signoras and Signores." Her soprano cut through the chatter.
She turned and faced the room. What are you afraid of? she chided herself. You've faced their surprise and pity a thousand times before, and at this rate, you'll do it a thousand times more. Best get used to it. She had been trying to get used to it for seven years now.
"I shall connect with the Unseen," Kate continued, "that you may see your future in my cards." She performed a mental drum roll as they gathered around her, those in the back straining to see. Well, see they would. She closed her eyes and lifted her veil.
At first they clapped. But then they would look closer. She waited. She didn't even flinch at the little gasp one woman gave. Her mirror showed her every day what they were seeing. Her complexion was fair in contrast to her dark hair, her face heart-shaped, her mouth a bow that lied about her innocence. But it was the delicate white net of scars that snaked over her temple and spread out over her left cheekbone like a fractured spider web that made them gasp.
"I have been marked by the forces of the universe, even as they granted me sight into matters beyond the pale." Or by Matthew. She opened her eyes and another gasp went round the circle. The lenses she had ground in Zurich gave her eyes a pearly opalescence. At least they could be removed, unlike the scar, though she couldn't be seen outside their rooms without them.
She sat on the huge throne of a chair, dwarfed by its carved gargoyles. "Who would like to see their future?" No one stepped forward. She expected that. "Do none of you wish advice on matters of finance, matters of love? My cards see all." Of course they wanted to see their futures, the silly geese. But in front of everyone? Ahhh, now that was a different question. The weak young fop pulled at his cravat. He would be the first to book a private session, but he had not the courage for a public reading. At least these days she kept her clothes on in the private readings.
She turned her eyes on the heavy-set woman, who wore an unfortunate cherry satin. Eagerness and uncertainty warred across the woman's face. She was past her prime. But her cheekbones and her well-opened eyes said she would have been a beauty once. Jewels dripped from her bosom, heaving just now in expectation. Expensive ostrich feathers nodded from her tiara. Overdressed. She would not be here if she were not respectable but Kate was willing to wager some impoverished aristocrat had saved his estates with a wealthy merchant's daughter.
Kate tilted her head and smiled. "Signora? Yes?"
The war was over. Uncertainty lost out .The woman beamed, looked self-consciously around and stepped forward. "If you insist," she murmured.
"Draw the Signora up a chair," Kate commanded. She opened her reticule of gray velvet embroidered with swirls of silver. An elderly gentleman provided a chair. She felt the crowd's attention, which had shifted to her cherry satin mark, snap back to her. The Conte placed an ornate table in front of her. The back of her deck of cards showed black with a spray of gilt stars. It was a beautiful deck. She had it made to her own specifications in Prague during a time when she and Matthew were flush. Her mark settled herself with much rustling of skirts.
"Signora, may I ask your name?" Kate began, sweetly.
"Baronessa Luchina di Martigana."
"Baronessa," Kate nodded her respect for the title and offered her deck. "Will you shuffle? The cards must feel your destiny." The Baronessa's eyes had a subtle puffiness, her nose, under its powder, was a little red. She had been crying. She didn't wear black, not even an armband. Difficult. She studied the Baronessa's face. Deep sadness. Deeper than warranted by the death of a beloved pet, or losing too much at cards. And then there was the arranged marriage. How did that fit in? But there… she wore a simple ring-too simple for her normal taste. It was one of those grisly mementos intricately braided from human hair. Ahhhh. Good thing she'd spotted it. Bereavement did not end with the wearing of black.
Kate took the pack and fanned it, face down across the table. "Take a card." The crowd of glittering Romans grew silent. "This card will be your past." The Baronessa took a card after much hesitation and laid it down. The Queen of Swords. Excellent. "It has been more than a year, yet still you grieve," she said quietly and watched the Baronessa's tears well as the crowd murmured their surprise.
"How could an English woman newly arrived in Rome know that?" The older man dressed in chocolate brown was plaintive.
"Hush, Horatio, the cards know, that is enough." His wife's expression was rapt.
The Baronessa couldn't speak, but only nodded.
Kate nodded to her and the Baronessa chose again. The King of cups. "He was the love of your life," Kate continued. "People thought the match convenient on both sides, but they did not reckon with Aphrodite. She blessed you both." She paused for effect as the Baronessa collected herself. "But let us turn to your future." She nodded and the Baronessa chose again. Let it be one I can weave into a story she wants to hear. The card she drew was the Tower Struck by Lightning. Drat. What can I make of this? A hiss of dread went around the room. No one could miss that the card was ominous.
"That seems bad," the Baronness said, her eyes worried.
Better play for time. "Our first trump card. They signify the large, moral questions, the life or death questions, the Destiny questions." The crowd always liked lore they didn't understand. Kate smiled. "This one is a sign of change. There will be an upheaval in your life." That was a safe prediction. She could use it later in many ways. She wouldn't say what the card really meant. And she wouldn't think about the uneasy feeling in her stomach. It almost felt as though someone would die. "We will get clarity from the next cards." What does this woman want to hear? She could fit almost any card to the story, if once she got the story right. The conflict between their social mores and their most secret desires rendered people vulnerable to suggestion. Of course the woman would want to find love again, even if she couldn't admit it to herself yet. They all wanted to find love. And Kate, who didn't believe in love at all, always predicted it for them. But that was too easy. She wanted to amaze the crowd with her first reading. A thought struck her. She knew what this woman wanted to hear.
The baronessa chose a card with trembling fingers. It almost didn't matter what it was. The four of wands. Perfect. "This is a card of family. See the manor house? " She touched her temple, the one with the scar. "I think… I think that in conjunction with the Tower, this means that your heritage is not what you thought." She rubbed the scar. "You will find you are of birth more noble than you suspected… and an uncle lost will be found."
The crowd gasped. The baronessa's eyes grew big.. Kate would be long gone before they realized that the prediction wasn't going to come true.
The crowd stirred. A murmur started somewhere in the back. Did someone dare to distract her audience? She hadn't yet promised the barronessa love. Kate felt an energy in the air, vibrating almost at the edge of consciousness. Something trembled inside Kate in response.
"Urbano, you dog, I heard you were back in town."
"You look haggard, man. Hard living?"
Kate heard the hostess of tonight's soiree say, "Gian, it has been too long."
The crowd parted as though it was being cut by a knife.
Kate blinked. The man who strolled to the center was… was quite literally the most beautiful man Kate had ever seen. His skin was palest olive and flawless, his hair a cascade of dark curls around his head and down over his neck, his features in perfect proportion. But it was his eyes that riveted one. They were light, a kind of green she had not seen in Italy and intense as she had never encountered. He was big. His black coat was cut to fit his broad shoulders exactly, and his trousers could not conceal the muscle in his thighs. He had a weary grace about him. And in spite of the fact that he pretended to lounge in front of her, one hand in his trouser pocket, he was clearly the source of that electric feeling in the air. It was almost as though he vibrated with… maleness. And Kate felt something stir in her she had not felt in a long time.
He examined the crowd for a moment as though looking for someone, before he turned his attention to her. "What have we here?" he said as he flicked his glance over her. He didn't bat one of his long, dark eyelashes at her appearance.
"She's the evening's entertainment. Most amusing," someone said.
That's all you aspire to be, Kate reminded herself as she controlled her frown. You entertain them right out of their gold. Large batches of it.
"She's telling my future, Urbano," the Baronessa simpered.
"I doubt that," the man drawled. How dare he? And really, his whole manner was arrogant. The creature was used to being so attractive to women he didn't even have to be civil. Apparently his name was Gian Urbano. The Marquessa had pronounced Gian like John, but with a lilt. He was going to spoil her game tonight if she wasn't careful.
Kate lifted her chin. "Don't disparage what you can't know, Signore."
"Oh, I know all right." He smirked as his gaze passed over her lenses. It was as though he knew her ruse. He examined her scar quite openly. He probably expected that was fake as well. His brows drew together. She flushed. "No," she wanted to say, "that is quite genuine." Then he cocked his head. "Would you care to read my cards?"
Kate wanted more than anything to refuse. But to refuse a challenge would be to lose the interest she'd created with her last reading. She inclined her head. "At your command," she said, putting all the sarcasm she could muster into it. She did not want him closer. Was it that energy about him that made her almost shiver in response?
The baronessa vacated her chair and Urbano eased into it, his knees nearly touching hers. Kate swallowed. Too close. Bloody hell. He was trying to put her off balance when all depended on remaining calm. She didn't like men, she reminded herself. Actually she didn't particularly like anyone. The life of a charlatan was necessarily a lonely one. But this someone in front of her thought everyone was in love with him, and he'd probably been right so far. He also thought a woman like her, scarred as she was, was depressed and nervous in his presence, knowing he could never find her attractive. Well, she was going to teach him a lesson, right here and now.
"Shuffle the cards," she said, holding them out. She resolved to ignore her body and his. He interwove the corners of the cards and arced them from hand to hand. The man had spent his share of time in card rooms. Several young men tried to push forward and were roundly repulsed by the elbows of ladies in the front.
Urbano handed the deck back to her. This close, his eyes were hard. She fanned the deck on the table. Hard, but covering something. One of the men greeting him had said he looked haggard. True, upon close examination, but it wasn't the smudge of shadow under his eyes. No, it was an expression that the hardness tried to cover-a disgust, a horror. Or maybe pain. That did not square with his arrogant manner and his languid certainty. Underneath the façade he was not sure of himself at all. She had made her living for more than seventeen years reading people, and this was one of the most complex, most disturbing impressions she had ever gotten of a man. Who was he, beneath that arrogant and beautiful exterior?
Nonsense. All she wanted to know was the answer she always needed from a mark: what story did he want to hear from a reading? But that was a problem. If she judged only by his surface, she would tell a story of triumph and adulation-something superficial. But those eyes contradicted everything. He would despise such a tale. And she wanted to make him eat his disdain. She pressed her lips together, as his knees touched hers and jerked away. She was actually getting wet between her legs. Get hold of yourself, she admonished.
"The first card is your past." He picked a card. The devil. A gasp went round the room from the women. Not bad for her purposes. The men murmured "better ask the women," or "evil is as evil does," or "no, Urbano the devil? Surely you jest."
The straight reading would do. "Ravage," she whispered, for effect. ""A choice forced upon you, debauchery, abasement, illicit lovers, slavery... even impotence." The crowd tittered to cover their shock. That would teach him to challenge her. "It could also indicate a tendency to those elements in your present and your future."
He looked as though he had been struck.
"Not able to rise to the occasion, Urbano?" One of the young men taunted into the din.
Anger roared into his eyes. She watched him master it. His mask of nonchalance came down. "So, I am evil. Not something you would have had to go far to learn." A small smile played about his lips. She thought it was forced. He didn't address the impotence. "Ask anyone."
"I didn't say you were evil." She smiled. Let him realize who was in charge here. She shrugged. "But he who draws the Devil plays close to the fire and must expect to be singed..."
His brows drew together. His drawl was forced as he said, "Excellent. Go on."
"This next card is who you are." He picked a card from near the bottom of the deck. "Strength-another trump. This card speaks of great force of will and personal energy, but always combined with the danger of beastly aggression." Did the cards know he fairly hummed with vitality? And what about aggression? Wasn't that the ultimate arrogance? That fit. She nodded to him and he picked again. Best be careful around him.
Kate took a breath as he drew another card. "The Hanged Man."
"I always knew you'd end on the gallows, Urbano."
"It isn't that," Kate said, almost against her will. "It is the card of trial, heedless sacrifice and surrender, even imprisonment from which only the offering of death can free you, often leading to re-birth." Her head began to ache. "A man must atone for his sins..."
She seemed to be growing more confused, not clearer. What would he want to hear? Did she want to tell this man what he wanted to hear? Her success demanded it.
But what he wanted to know was that she was a charlatan. Which was true. But she couldn't admit that. Not and get the money she needed. Or enough that I can stop displaying my scars, physical and emotional.
Where had that thought come from? She didn't have any emotional scars. She was hard as nails and proud of it. In fact she was doing just fine, thank you very much. I'm smarter than anyone here, including this tulip. And intelligence was what mattered in the end. Not beauty.
I'll talk about his fate being pre-destined. That's always popular. But, unaccountably, she didn't. "You have experienced much violence, caused through your own extraordinary efforts, and these events have taken their toll on you." Where had that come from? Maybe the violence was why he had such pain behind his eyes. But what violence could this sprig of fashion have known? No doubt some husband had called him out.
She could feel Urbano's stare. His knee grazed hers under the table again, sending a flood of sensation through her. He drew another card. "The Lovers." She swallowed and managed a smile. "Do you draw nothing but trumps?"
Enough. She was going to skew a reading here. She wouldn't give him what the Lovers traditionally indicated. He didn't deserve it.
She meant to say he would be crossed in love. But what she did say was, "Still, love comes. This card tells of attraction, possibly even true love, but with a trial of choice still to be overcome." Had her skill at weaving stories deserted her? And yet… the cards seemed to be telling their own story. Nonsense. They don't tell the stories, I do.
"But he's impotent, remember?" a young male voice called. "That doesn't make sense."
She closed the deck. "Impotent or not, he will find love." She had a feeling if she continued something dreadful would be revealed, not about him but about her. Or about him, too. She couldn't tell. She blinked against the churning in her stomach. What was happening here?
"I want another card," he said roughly.
The blood drained from her face but she spread the deck again. He picked a card.
"What is it?" a woman in the second row of the circle asked.
He laid it down. "The Star," she practically whispered. The crowd hung on her every word. "There is hope for redemption-perhaps through the intervention of a woman. The fates have not done with you." Perhaps he would overcome whatever had given him so much pain that he had to paper it over with that smirk and that drawl. That was something she could work with.
"Many words, my little card turner. What do they mean?" His voice was a deep baritone of course, an insanely attractive voice even though it was hoarse just now. "I'd like specifics."
He was challenging her to make the story that had eluded her thus far. She looked up. The eyes that could not hide the pain and doubt bored into her. Everyone else in the room hung on her words, the men wanting something they could use to jibe him, the women hoping for something that said he would be theirs. But she didn't have any words, only an ache in her head and a feeling of… dislocation, as though she was looking at herself from far away. I don't know the story! Panic churned inside her.
Yet words came.
"You have seen blood, rivers of it, in a desert." She blinked. The room began to swirl, the colors of the crowd melting together. "Blood you brought forth through extraordinary heroism in a cause you believed was just." She stood. The table toppled. Surprised, she glanced down to see the cards scattering very slowly to the floor. But the crowd behind them was spinning faster. "It has left you wandering in your soul, impotent. Evil is around you even now, and may still win out." Her voice did not seem to be her own. "Many trials are ahead. Thievery will be involved. I see a stone, an emerald. Your arrogance has still a chance to be tempered into wisdom by your trials." She had a sensation of falling, and yet she knew she stood, looking up at him. He too stood, staring in fascinated horror. "There is hope for you to understand true beauty and win love. You can be transformed." She gazed up into those green eyes and the room receded entirely. She couldn't even find herself, she had drifted so far away.
The green of his eyes turned into the green of a stone.
It was an emerald, as big as half her fist. It glowed in darkness. A woman's hand with long nails held it with a pair of silver tongs. The glow of the emerald cast refracted green light on the rough stone walls and floor of a cramped room. He was there: the arrogant, beautiful one. He was naked and chained to the wall. His pale skin stood out against the dark stone of the floor. "You are mine," the woman said. "The jewel will give you to me." Fear shone in the man's eyes. The woman came closer touched the flesh of his chest with the stone. He arched and groaned. The glow brightened until it lit the cell with a blinding green light. The woman's laughter echoed crazily back from the rock walls.
And then nothing. The stone cell vanished. Kate took one breath, and collapsed.